The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special

Li Fei
Shanghai has more more coffee shops than any other city in the world. And each has its own style and flavor. So get out there and taste the flavor of Shanghai.
Li Fei

Home to nearly 7,000 coffee shops – more than any other city in the world – Shanghai is truly the city of coffee. But how to define that special Shanghai coffee flavor?

Bright Dairy milk, White Rabbit candies and osmanthus sugar are said to be the "memories of the city," – and the classic ingredients to be put in a Shanghai-style coffee.

The crossover of time-honored brands, magic ingredients and the stories behind them make city's unique array of coffee houses well worth a visit.

The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Fiona Li in a Shanghai coffee shop

The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

A barista making coffee

Coffee with classic Shanghai brine

The latest news on the Shanghai coffee scene is blending zaolu pickle sauce into coffee, offered by the 169-year-old local brand Shaowansheng's first coffee store. The store was opened last month in cooperation with independent J9 Coffee.

A traditional Shanghai brine, zaolu is made with a sauce extracted from aged distilled grain and then seasoned with herbs and spices. Soaked into cooked and chilled meat, vegetables and seafood, it produces fast and simple appetizers that can help boost appetites in the hottest summer months.

So how does it taste when this brine is blended into a cup of coffee?

Shaowansheng's zaolu coffee is named "Wulixiang," which means "home" in Shanghai dialect. In a 1980s-style black and white glass, the coffee combines pineapple, jasmine and herbal notes with cold brew coffee and dried plums.

The zaolu is sprayed on it when served – not too much to affect the flavor of the coffee itself, but giving you the special smell of zaolu.

And my favorite detail – a skewered fudge and dried apricot on the top absorbing the zaolu – perfectly matches the coffee.

There are three other Shanghai specials in the store. Shanghai Lady, which blends grapefruit and mint in an espresso. Shanghai Gentleman, coffee with whisky, is served with Shaowansheng's sausage. J9 Lane combines black plum and Shanghai rice wine in a cup of coffee.

Their snacks are also worth a bite – Napoleon cake and Palmiers (hudiesu, or butterfly cookies), popular in 1930s Shanghai. It's a cream cake with a pastry skin and you can choose stuffings such as salted egg yolk, coconut flakes, or spring onion.

Shaowansheng × J9 Coffee

Address: 192 Xizang Rd M., Huangpu District

Opening hours: 9am-9pm

The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Fiona Li in front of the Shaowansheng × J9 Coffee Shop

Shanghai-style covers decoration as well as taste

A cafe is not just a place to drink, but a place to enjoy the character of the city and the neighborhood.

There is a particular trendy venue that incorporates Shanghai-style elements. Shanghailander is more than just another cafe. It feels like a well-curated cultural space for both locals and others with themed exhibitions and musical events from time to time.

Shanghailander is also known as Jufu – gathering/harvesting good fortune. Daniel, owner of the cafe, told the reporter that he opened the first cafe at Wulumuqi Road W. in 2015, the road was called Jufu Road in the 1930s, so he decided to name his cafe Jufu.

He didn't aim to open a Shanghai-style cafe at first, but finally it developed its style.

"I bought the furniture, the decorations, the cups and plates as I like, most of them are old items," he said.

Now there are three locations, each with a different theme and decor. But you can taste the same Shanghai blends and signature mille crepe cakes in each.

One of this season's special offers is a fresh mint latte – a home-made mint sauce is added to the coffee.

With a light mint fragrance and strong coffee aroma, the taste is rich, interesting, and refreshing. Remember to stir the mint sauce well before drinking.

And they use the same 1980s-style black and white glass as Shaowansheng.

If you just choose one of the three to visit, it must be the Wuyuan Road store: Every month, there is an art exhibition there.

This month's features cute designs from local artist Chen Naixi. There are cartoon bags and phone shells, inspired by the local department stores of his childhood.

Daniel shared a detail – "every chair in the Wuyuan Road store is different."

The piano is also a highlight. Everyone can play their piece of Chopin here!


Address: 92 Wuyuan Rd, Xuhui District

Opening hours: 8am-6pm (Monday to Friday); 9am-6pm (Saturday and Sunday)

The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Coffee cups and trays with Chinese elements on display at Jufu

A cup of Shanghai legend

There is a legend about Tian'ai Road in Hongkou District.

It is said that if lovers walk on this road hand in hand, their love will last a lifetime. That made the Tian'ai cafe part of a Shanghai legend since its opening in 1999.

Thousands of lovers have written their names on the wall of the cafe, while the mailbox in front of the cafe is always full of love letters.

The Shanghai special blends here are full of local ingredients, such as the "Old Shanghai Coffee" and a coffee with Bright Dairy's ice cream brick.

The scent of Bright Dairy milk and Lacovo will always awaken childhood memories of narrow alleys, greetings from neighbors, childhood playmates and young parents.

"Old Shanghai Coffee" mixes the milk-flavored ice cream, together with chocolate-flavored Lacovo granules and sea salt cream.

Take a big sip, and the crispy Lacovo granules wrapped in sea salt cream on the surface are a prelude to activate the taste buds.

Then, the collision of the strong coffee and a tropical fruit flavor creates a soaring taste.

Sending a postcard after a coffee is a custom at the Tian'ai Cafe.

You can choose to send it any day in the coming year – just 4 yuan (62 US cents) for one with domestic stamp.

Tian'ai Cafe

Address: 129 Tian'ai Rd, Hongkou District

Opening hours: 10am-9:30pm

The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Customers can send a postcard after sipping a coffee at Tian'ai Cafe.

Shanghai books in coffee

Coffee blends inspired by books? That is what you'll taste in the Writer Bookstore.

In a two-story historic house on Julu Road in Jing'an District, there are over 3,000 books in the bookstore, and over 80 percent are literature books, making it a favorite place for local writers.

The second floor is where the cafe is located, it's said that most of Shanghai's writers had once written their books here, each of them even has a private cup with his/her signature on it.

There are 17 different special coffees, each named after a Shanghai writer's book.

I recommend "Fascinating Islands" by famous local author Chen Danyan.

Coconut milk and chocolate sauce add the flavor of the sea and the cream on it looks like an island. The taste and the feeling of reading complement each other.

The Writer Bookstore

Address: 677 Julu Rd, Jing'an District

Opening hours:10am-6pm (Monday to Friday); 12am-8pm (Saturday and Sunday)

The unique flavors, history and stories that make Shanghai coffee special
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

The two-story historic house on Julu Road has 3,000 books in its bookstore.

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